Friday, February 27, 2015

Do Three Idiots Plus One Brain Cell Equal a Rip-Off or a Homage? :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Dennis Dugan's Brain Donors (1992)

Our film opens at the reading of the will of multi-gabillionaire, Oscar Winterhaven Oglethorpe. Well, not quite. Seems Victor Lazlo (Savident), the late swell's slime-ball attorney, wants to begin but Oscar’s wife, Lillian (Marchand), insists on waiting for her personal attorney, Roland T. Flakfizer, to help oversee things. Thus and so, she sends Jacques (Nelson), her simpleton groundskeeper, to find him, who tracks Flakfizer (Turturro) down at the site of an auto accident. E'yup. Flakfizer is an ambulance chaser, who’s trying to represent both sides of a minor fender-bender into suing each other for big bucks. When Jacques grabs him and calls for a cab, they’re picked up by Rocco Melencheck (Smith) and head back to the Oglethorpe estate -- at least until Rocco recognizes Flakfizer, who served as the attorney for his ex-wife in their divorce case, who got the judge to triple the alimony payments so he wouldn’t have to sleep with her in cheap motels anymore. This carnage continues until they realize no one is driving the cab! Managing to get it stopped, they all spill out and Flakfizer, smelling big money to be fleeced from the Oglethorpes, makes peace and hires Rocco and Jacques as his personal assistants.

Much to Lazlo's chagrin, Flakfizer takes over the proceedings while Jacques and Rocco make general nuisances of themselves. Long story short, everything is left to Lillian but she must use part of the money to establish a new ballet company. Flakfizer thinks this is a lousy idea -- until he hears what the stupefying annual salary is for the head of the company and quickly volunteers for the job; but, so does Lazlo, who claims he can sign the great Roberto Volare for their fledgling company, giving them immediate credibility. Knowing he must sign him first, or lose the job to Lazlo, Flakfizer and his flunkies head off to the ballet; and while Rocco mucks around backstage, Jacques and Flakfizer find their seats but treat the ballet like Joel, Mike and the Bots treat the movies on MST3k.

After the show, Flakfizer tries to sign Volare (de la Pena) but is immediately rebuffed by the snobbish dancer. Meanwhile, Rocco and Jacques want to sign Lisa le Baron and Alan Grant (Donald and Alexander). Seems these two amateurs also want to get married, but Alan is unemployed and therefore cannot afford it. Taking pity on them, Rocco talks Flakfizer into signing them instead, and then conspire to introduce them to Lillian by staging a performance for her at a garden reception. Their thunder is stolen, however, when Lazlo arrives with Volare, whom he delivers as promised. When the two young lovers show their stuff, a smitten Volare picks Lisa to be his prima ballerina for their debut production of Swan Lake, but snubs Alan. But! Being Lisa's agent, Flakfizer has the leverage to get himself appointed as co-chairman of the ballet company with Lazlo. And with the conflict now set, much, much, much mayhem ensues...

As a screenwriter, Pat Proft, who had a hand in the notorious Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), brought you Bachelor Party, Real Genius, and the Police Academy and The Naked Gun franchises in the 1980s but then kinda crapped out in the 1990s with the likes of High School High, Mr. Magoo and Wrongfully Accused. Brain Donors (1992) came out right in the middle of that transition; and it's director, Dennis Dugan, who also starred in the tragically short-lived small-screen spook-show, Shadow Chasers, has since graduated to directing Adam Sandler comedies. Serving as executive producers, this flick is also a novelty for the Zucker brothers (-- this time sans producing-partner, Jim Abrams). Instead of a slapstick spoof played straight we get an outright homage to the anarchy of the Marx Brothers; in particular, A Night at the Opera. Turturro is magnificent as our Groucho surrogate. Nelson equally so as a loquacious Harpo, complete with bottomless pockets. Smith is a passable Chico, and he gets the best lines. Donald and Alexander fill in for Kitty Carlisle and Zeppo. But the show is stolen out from under all of them by Marchand, whose dead-ringer impersonation of Margaret Dumont (The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Duck Soup etc.) is both uncanny and nothing short of brilliant.

During production, Paramount was set to release the film as Lame Ducks, with a massive promotional blitz, playing up the Zucker angle, hoping to cash-in on the reputation of their comedy classics like The Kentucky Fried Movie (1978) and Airplane (1980). Before filming was completed, however, the Zuckers jilted Paramount for 20th Century Fox. And after they bailed, Paramount retaliated by scrapping the campaign, leaving the film to flounder for a very limited release before yanking it. The critics who did see it were not kind. It quickly bombed and quietly disappeared, which is a damn shame because the movie is fantastic.

Book-ended by two outstanding Claymation-animated credit sequences, courtesy of Will Vinton, the plot in-between does transpire like a typical Marx Bros. movie, with three social deviants hell bent on bucking the norm and taking pot-shots at the cultural elite. They are oblivious to the world around them, and only interact when they are threatened -- or if there is a profit to be made or a skirt to chase. The plot is threadbare because all it has to do is move you from one gag to the next. Now, the majority of the gags will seem eerily familiar if your know your Marx Bros.' lore. There's an emergency room scene that's lifted from A Day at the Races (1937). That garden party is nearly a carbon copy of the one from Duck Soup (1933) -- my favorite Marx Brother movie. And the drawing up of a standard contract is almost verbatim from A Night at the Opera (1935). (Alas, Virginia, there still is no Sanity Clause.) There's also a nod to the stateroom scene from the same, where around 1500 people (including a lobster-gram) get themselves jammed-up into Volere’s dressing room. And Flakfizer does a play-by-play during the carnage after the curtain goes up for the finale just like Groucho did in Monkey Business (1931). And as in all of them, there’s also the obligatory romantic subplot in Brain Donors that helps unite the trio to foil the bad guys. And, of course, the complete and utter destruction of a famous ballet.

That's not to say the film isn't completely unoriginal. As the preparations for opening night near completion, a press conference is called and, once again, Flakfizer takes over and more mayhem ensues. Afterward, when the lecherous Volare tries to put the moves on Lisa, she hides in her dressing room, where she happily finds Rocco, Jacques and Alan waiting for her. This is short lived, however, as Volare comes a calling. After the others hide, Lisa lets him in; and when Volare gets a little too aggressive, Alan jumps out and slugs him. This is the last indignation suffered for Volare, who has been conspiring with Lazlo to get the chaotically cantankerous trio fired. Next, we move to the hotel where Lillian, Lazlo and Flakfizer are staying. Setting their plan in motion, Volare plants one of his under-age dancers in Flakfizer’s room to seduce him, then later, Lazlo will bring Lillian in to catch them in the act. But Rocco and Jacques get wind of this and warn Flakfizer in time. So when Lazlo and Lillian arrive, through some hilarious quick moves, it is Lazlo who’s caught in bed with the jailbait. During this chaos, Lillian is accidentally knocked unconscious just before a courier arrives with some condemning information against Flakfizer. As Lillian is rushed to the hospital, Lazlo promises to expose them all as soon as she wakes up.

Beating him to the hospital, the three con-men pose as doctors to try and intercept Lazlo, whom they manage to knock out with some ether. When Lillian’s real doctor shows up, they pretend to be working on Lazlo. But they obviously don’t know what they’re doing as they de-pants the patient. When asked, "Aren’t you cardiologists?" Rocco replies, "Well, we plan to enter the rectum and head north." With that, the doctor calls security, they’re caught, exposed as frauds, and sent off to jail, where, in an inspired scene, Jacques is forced to empty those bottomless pockets with hilarious results. After Lisa and Alan bail them out, using her severance pay from the ballet company (-- Volare had her fired and promises to blackball her from ever dancing professionally again), not wanting the bad guys to win, our three heroes concoct a plan to get back at their tormentors and get these two young lovers back onstage.

I’d like to describe exactly what happens next, but words simply cannot do it justice. Lets just say Flakfizer and company do to the performance what the iceberg did to the Titanic -- including stuffing a whoopee cushion in Volare’s tights, inserting a giant duck amongst the swan dancers, and lighting the conductors baton on fire to liven things up. Again, all of this accompanied by a riveting play-by-play by Flakfizer. Exposed, Volare is booed off the stage and Lazlo gets arrested, then Alan and Lisa go on and save the performance. Thus, all is right in the world. But as they bask in the glory with Lillian backstage, our boys hear an ambulance go by and immediately run off to give chase, bringing this insanity to an ever-lovin' end.

I will warn you all that this type of humor won’t appeal to everyone. If you don’t like the Marx Brothers, or that type of comedy free-for-all, Brain Donors might not be for you. If you are a fan, What are you waiting for? Knowledge of the Marx Bros. canon, while helpful, isn’t required. The zingers come fast and furious and can be overwhelming at times. There is a fine line between ripping-off and paying homage, and Brain Donors admittedly teeters on the edge. As to the critics who brand it a total rip-off, I say cut them some slack. Sure, some scenes are basically the originals with the serial numbers filed off, and some of the jokes do fall flat, but the actors portraying the characters give such an earnest, heartfelt performance that I don’t think Groucho, Chico, Harpo, or even Zeppo, would mind. I know I didn’t. I laughed my ass off.

Brain Donors (1992) Zucker Brothers Productions :: Paramount Pictures / EP: David Zucker, Jerry Zucker / P: Gil Netter, James D. Brubaker / AP: Steven Hirsch / D: Dennis Dugan / W: Pat Proft / C: David M. Walsh / E: Malcolm Campbell / M: Ira Newborn / S: John Turturro, Bob Nelson, Mel Smith, Nancy Marchand, John Savident, George De La Pena, Juliana Donald, Spike Alexander

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